On a beautiful late spring afternoon, three years ago, two young men decided they need to build muscle.
They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had normal physiques and average genetics and, as young aspiring Adonises, were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.
Recently, these two men met again in the gym.
They were still very much alike. Both had been consistent with their training and dieting. Both had read the same books and blogs and had tried the same types of workout programs.
But there was a difference. One of the men had gained over 30 pounds of muscle and looked lean and athletic. The other had gained maybe half that and looked soft and flabby.
Have you ever wondered what makes this kind of difference in people’s physiques? It isn’t always genetics or dedication. It isn’t that one person wants success and the other doesn’t.
The difference lies in what each person knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.
And in this article, I’m going to share with you everything you need to know to follow in the winner’s footsteps. (And yes, everything in this article applies equally to women!)
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Bulking is a controversial subject these days.
- On one hand, it has earned its place in the canon of bodybuilding. “You want big muscles?” A century of meatheads have asked. “Then you’d better have a big appetite.”
- On the other hand, it has earned its fair share of scathing criticism. “You want to gain a ton of fat and little muscle?” A legion of modern fitness gurus retort. “Then listen to the meatheads.”
Who’s right? Well, unsurprisingly, the truth isn’t so black and white.
Bulking isn’t inherently good or bad. As you’ll see, the basic theory is sound but execution is everything.
“Body recomposition”–gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time–has gained a lot from the debate and is the “go-to” marketing button to sell all kinds of PDFs, pills, and powders.
That isn’t black and white, either. If you’re new to weightlifting, then yes, you can likely do it. If you’re not, then no, you probably can’t.
The truth is this:
If you want to gain muscle as quickly as possible, you have to be willing to gain some fat too.
And to be specific, the goal when bulking up is gaining muscle and fat at about an equal rate. Some people will gain a bit more fat than muscle and some lucky bastards will have it the other way around.
Why? It starts with this:
Your body’s ability to build muscle is strongly affected by how much food you eat.
Eating enough protein isn’t enough. If you want to build muscle as quickly as possible, you need to eat enough calories as well. If you undereat, your body simply won’t be able to build much muscle.
You see, you feed your body so much energy every day and it burns so much through activity. The relationship between these quantities is known as energy balance.
If you feed your body less energy than it burns, you’ve created a “negative energy balance” or “calorie deficit.” This is necessary for losing fat.
A calorie deficit has downsides, however.
That is, your body just can’t add to muscle tissue efficiently when in a calorie deficit.
This double-whammy of reduced testosterone and increased cortisol levels further blunt your body’s ability to build muscle.
- It reduces workout performance.
I don’t need to cite research here because anyone that has restricted calories for fat loss quickly learns this.
Newbies can gain strength while in a calorie deficit but most experienced weightlifters are going to experience slight strength loss while dieting. The best they can hope for is maintaining their strength.
This, of course, isn’t conducive to muscle growth.
These are the three reasons why maximizing muscle growth absolutely requires that you ensure you’re not in a calorie deficit. And the most reliable way to do that is to slightly overshoot your body’s energy needs and place it in what’s known as a “calorie surplus.”
This is why it’s often say you have to eat big to get big.
When you’re looking to bulk up, a calorie surplus is essential regardless of dietary protocol.
No matter what you do with your macronutrients or eating schedule, you simply can’t get around the need for a positive energy balance.
How Big Do You Have to Eat to Get Big?
This is where many bulking programs get screwy. They prescribe sky-high calorie intakes, which is ultimately counterproductive.
Here’s the good news: bulking doesn’t require eating nearly as much as you might think.
Where most bulking advice misses the boat is the simple fact that a slight calorie surplus is equally effective for muscle-building purposes as a large one.
That is, if you eat on average 10% more calories than your body burns, that’s equally anabolic as eating 20 or 30% more.
The big difference between those approaches though is how much fat you’ll gain.
- If you maintain a 10% calorie surplus, you’ll slowly gain small amounts of fat over the course of months.
- If you maintain a 30% surplus, however, you’ll quickly gain large amounts of fat without gaining any additional muscle.
This causes bigger problems than just ruining your “aesthetics.” Namely, it further accelerates fat storage and slows down muscle growth.
You see, as body fat levels rise…
The bottom line is the better your body responds to insulin’s signals, the better it can do many things, including building muscle and resisting fat gain.
As you can see, excessive fat storage while bulking is a triple-whammy of fail: it hinders muscle growth, accelerates fat storage, and makes undoing the weight gain even harder.
This “dirty” style of bulking casts a long dark shadow over the indisputable truth that a calorie surplus is necessary for optimizing muscle growth.
Here’s how you do it right:
1. Maintain a moderate calorie surplus of 5 to 10% when bulking.
This should allow you to gain 0.5 to 1 pound per week, which is your goal if you’re a man. Women should shoot for half.
If you’re not sure how to determine your calorie intake, click here.
2. Don’t screw it all up with massive cheat meals or days.
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make while bulking is egregious overeating.
A couple days of gorging per week while bulking is enough to cause you to gain fat at double or even triple the normal rate.
Don’t do this. Learn how to “cheat” intelligently instead.
3. If you’re a guy and you’re over 15% body fat, reduce this to about 10% before bulking. If you’re a girl and over 25% body fat, diet down to ~20% before bulking.
This is ideal for several reasons: it preserves insulin sensitivity and hormonal balance, it allows you to maintain a calorie surplus for many months before having to reduce body fat levels, and it saves you from long, grueling cuts.
4. Once you reach 15 to 17% (men) or 25 to 27% (women) body fat, stop bulking and start reducing body fat levels.
Don’t “slow cut,” either. Do everything you can to safely and healthily lose fat as quickly as possible.
5. Juggle your bulks and cuts like this until you’ve gained the size you want.
If you’re like most people, you’ll eventually reach a point where you’re happy with your overall muscle size and development.
The name of the game then becomes getting and staying lean while still training hard and progressing in your lifts and addressing weak points in your physique.
What to Do When You’re Not Gaining Weight
I mentioned earlier that you want to gain 0.5 to 1 pound per week (0.25 to 0.5 for women) when bulking.
What should you do when you’re gaining less or no weight whatsoever?
I’ve yet to piece together a holistic scientific explanation for why this is, but my experience working with thousands of people has verified it hundreds of times over.
If you’re gaining strength but not weight (and thus muscle), you’re not eating enough. It’s that simple.
By increasing your calorie intake you’ll eventually bring it into the range that is your body’s “sweet spot” for muscle growth.
Now, I don’t recommend you increase intake willy-nilly. Here’s how you do it right.
1. Keep your protein at 1 gram per pound of body weight.
2. Increase your daily calorie intake by 100 to 150 calories by increasing carbohydrate intake.
That is, add 25 to 35 grams of carbs to your daily intake.
3. If, after 7 to 10 days, your weight is still the same, repeat #2.
Increase daily carb intake repeatedly until you’re gaining weight at the desired rate.
It’s really that simple.
I should note, however, that some people (guys usually) need to eat downright gluttonous amounts of food to gain weight steadily. I’m talking 160-pound guys having to eat 4,000+ calories per day just to gain 0.5 pounds per week (“hardgainers“).
In this case it’s not exactly feasible to reach their necessary calorie levels by increasing carbohydrate intake alone. In such cases I recommend capping carbs at about 3 grams per pound and, if more calories are needed, start increasing fat intake instead.
I know I’ve already given you a lot of information to process but I’d be remiss to not talk about training and recovery as well.
The reality is a perfect bulking diet is basically useless if you’re not also training correctly and giving your body what it needs to recover.
I’ll try to keep this section short and sweet though.
1. Emphasize heavy compound weightlifting in your workouts.
2. Push yourself hard in your training but don’t overtrain.
High-frequency workout programs are really popular these days but you have to be careful with this approach.
Your muscles can only take so much of a beating every week before your body falls behind in its ability to repair the damage caused by training.
Training frequency alone doesn’t determine much in the way of gains. That is, just because you train a muscle group once, twice, or thrice per week doesn’t guarantee you’ll make progress.
Total weekly volume (number of reps performed) and intensity (load in terms of percentage of 1RM) are more important. Get these right and you’ll be in the money.
Training frequency is best viewed as a tool to hit optimal amounts of weekly volume and intensity. And there are many ways to skin, or split, that cat.
Learn more about determining the right volume, intensity, and frequency for you here.
3. Do everything you can to help your body rest and recover.
Learn more about muscle recovery and muscle growth here.
The right expectations are just as important as everything else discussed so far.
If you’re clinging to an unrealistic goal for muscle growth you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and failure.
Know this: if you want to dramatically change your physique, it’s going to take more time than you probably think.
Forget the hyperbole used to sell you supplements, magazines, and workout programs. You can’t transform your body in a month or two and you can’t pack on 50+ pounds of muscle in a year.
Here’s what you can do, though, with consistent, dedicated and proper training and dieting:
- Men can gain 15 to 25 pounds of muscle in their first year of weightlifting. Women can gain about half of that.
- Men can gain 8 to 13 pounds of muscle in year two. Women can gain about half.
- Men can gain 5 to 6 pounds of muscle in year three and 2 to 3 pounds per year each successive year. Women’s numbers are again halved.
If you’d like to learn more about the science and reasoning behind those guidelines, check out this article.
If you’re new to weightlifting and want to go from a normal physique to a muscular, fit one, you can assume you’ll need to gain anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds of muscle as a man and about half that as a woman.
As you can see from the numbers above, that takes time. Anywhere from 1 to 3 to 4 years to be specific.
So don’t take up weightlifting as a quick fix. It’s not. It’s a lifestyle.
Now you see why bulking has gotten such a bad rap among certain fitness experts. It’s easy to mess up.
Fortunately, it’s also easy to do right, and you now know what that takes:
- Maintain a slight calorie surplus.
- Don’t blow your diet with cheating.
- Don’t allow your body fat percentage to get too high.
- Emphasize heavy compound weightlifting.
- Train hard but don’t overtrain.
- Use sleep, diet, and supplements to optimize muscle recovery.
- Set realistic goals and stay patient.
Do those things and you’ll never struggle with gaining size again.
What’s your take on bulking up? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
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- Rohrmann S, Shiels MS, Lopez DS, et al. Body fatness and sex steroid hormone concentrations in US men: results from NHANES III. Cancer Causes Control. 2011;22(8):1141-1151. doi:10.1007/s10552-011-9790-z
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- Dyck DJ, Heigenhauser GJF, Bruce CR. The role of adipokines as regulators of skeletal muscle fatty acid metabolism and insulin sensitivity. Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2006;186(1):5-16. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1716.2005.01502.x
- Tomiyama AJ, Mann T, Vinas D, Hunger JM, Dejager J, Taylor SE. Low calorie dieting increases cortisol. Psychosom Med. 2010;72(4):357-364. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c
- Cangemi R, Friedmann AJ, Holloszy JO, Fontana L. Long-term effects of calorie restriction on serum sex-hormone concentrations in men. Aging Cell. 2010;9(2):236-242. doi:10.1111/j.1474-9726.2010.00553.x
- Zito CI, Qin H, Blenis J, Bennett AM. SHP-2 regulates cell growth by controlling the mTOR/S6 kinase 1 pathway. J Biol Chem. 2007;282(10):6946-6953. doi:10.1074/jbc.M608338200